Wauwatosa’s Nancy Olson recalls her years in Hollywood

In 1950, Nancy Olson, a 21-year-old actress from Milwaukee, was cast as Betty Schaefer in the film Sunset Street. As a result of her strong performance, she co-starred in later films with William Holden, John Wayne, Sterling Hayden, Van Johnson and Fred McMurray. Seventy-two years later, Olson has compiled her memories in a new book, Front row seat.

In a recent interview, Olson recalled her roots in Milwaukee and the events that guided her to becoming an actress. She got a supporting role in a play at Juno High School which she says changed her life forever. “When the play ended, there was something very different,” she said. Strangers stopped talking to me. The teachers whispered to each other and smiled at me.” Olson said this was the moment she knew what she wanted to do with her life. At 94, Olson remains a sharp and lively conversationalist who is ready to talk about anything, including her age.

You seem young. I thought you were about seventy.

Thank you, but even 70 seems old to me. Before we get started, I’d like to ask you a few questions.


After I performed in Juneau, my parents felt there was something different about me, and helped me transfer to Wauwatosa High School because of their outstanding drama program and theater. He believed that attending this school would enhance any budding talent I might have. At the time, Bawatosa was recognized as one of the best schools in the Midwest. Do they still have this position? Is the show still on?

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I can’t speak to the regional school’s reputation but the in-city rating is pretty decent. My son was in the theater program and my daughter was in forensics.

really? that’s cool. I was fortunate to have a teacher, Mrs. Gibson, who taught Drama and English. She worked with me to improve the way I speak, and that’s something I’ve never forgotten.In addition to yourself, the Wauwatosa alumni list includes film critic Richard Schickel and actor Spencer Tracy.

I don’t think I knew that. How about downtown Milwaukee? Wisconsin used to be very exciting with stores and theaters. Is it still that way?

Unfortunately no. Two theaters have been renovated and converted into performing arts venues, but the street’s luster has long since disappeared. But… I’m supposed to do an interview You, not the other way around.

(laughs) I know! go ahead.

Since we talked about Milwaukee, I’d like you to talk about being an unknown young actress in a big budget movie like Sunset Boulevard. It’s not unusual for actors to work 10 or 15 years to get to that level.

I admit it was fast, but there were a few steps in between. After graduating from Wauwatosa High, I moved to Los Angeles with my aunt and uncle. She took a summer class in the performing arts program at UCLA. I had such a great time that I didn’t want to go back to Wisconsin. Instead, she participated in any play or musical. A talented Paramount scout was in the audience at one of those shows and invited me to do a screen test in the studio. He must have loved the test because I signed a long-term contract for $300 a month.

Did it work right away?

It wasn’t long before they put me in a movie with Randolph Scott. Paramount loaned me to 20th Century-Fox for Canadian Pacific. I thought the whole thing was a little silly. First, Randolph Scott was a year younger than my dad! And I was going to play an Indian woman. I told them I am Scandinavian. I had blue eyes and blonde hair and could barely look the part. I was told not to worry because I will dye my hair black every morning! Like I said, silly. But I got my first screen credit from the experience.

I think you’re talking about learning to act for the camera rather than the stage in your book.

the correct. I realized that the camera captures every nuance in every facial expression. The camera tells the story. You can express your sadness with one close-up of tears in someone’s eye. This means up to half a page of text.

And then you were chosen to play Betty on Sunset Boulevard?

Yes, my next project after loaning Fox was a picture of Billy Wilder. The script was great, and I realized what I picked up on the job Canadian Pacific It will be very useful. Wilder’s script was great for the actor because it contained detailed descriptions of what the camera would see while speaking.

You wrote that William Holden was not the first choice for the role of Joe Gillis.

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The studio wanted Montgomery Clift for this part, and they wanted Mae West to play Norma Desmond. This may have been a bad choice. Instead, William Holden and Gloria Swanson signed. Choosing Bill Holden was a stroke of genius. got angry our city And the golden boy before joining the army. When he returned to Hollywood, he was forgotten and played some second strings to get his career back on track. In the movie, Joe Gillis is at the end of his rope, selling his soul to stay alive. Bill fully understood that character because he had been going through the same thing in his life. He was drinking a lot and his marriage was deteriorating. Bill was a desperate man playing a desperate man.

And what about your role?

Betty Schaefer is an ambitious young woman determined to succeed in screenwriting. The viewer sees through her eyes the ugly truth about the making of pictures. Actors and other talents are reduced to the goods that are bought and sold.

The on-screen chemistry between you and Holden was unmistakable.

Bill and I took several other photos together: Union Station, submarine command And the weapon power. I loved the way he kissed me, but I wouldn’t interfere with his marriage. I grew up in the Midwest, I think. Hollywood is not a life for those looking for balance. It is very isolated. We worked six days a week from seven in the morning until six in the evening. The only relationships we had were with the wardrobe, hairstylists, makeup artists and other people working in the field.

I’d like to talk about your second husband, Alan Livingston. He had a strong influence on pop culture in the 1960s.

It was. Alan has worked with Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, The Beach Boys, The Beatles, and many more. He began working for Capitol Records in 1946 when it was a small label in Hollywood. By 1962, Alan made it the most competitive record company in the world. He even helped create the iconic circular tower on Vine Street.

What do you remember about Frank Sinatra?

In 1952, Frank was abandoned by Columbia. He wasn’t selling any records, and he couldn’t even book club dates, let alone appear in movies or TV shows. Frank was broke and in debt. He drank too much, and Ava Gardner left him. Alan immediately signed Sinatra to a one-year contract with the Capitol. Immediately Frank’s confrontations with Alan began. He didn’t want to accept any of Alan’s ideas that might help his career. He just wanted to work with people he had known for many years. Against Frank’s wishes, Alan puts him together with conductor Nelson Riddle. He persuaded Alan Frank to record “Young at Heart”, which became the number one single that year and revived his career. Alan instinctively knew how to handle a difficult character like Frank.

How about Alan working with the Beatles?

(laughs) Alan came home one day and was really excited about a song by a band from England. I listened to the phrase “I want to hold your hand” and told him that was the worst thing I had ever heard! Thank God he did not accept my opinion! Alan signed to The Beatles to Capitol and that song instantly became a smash hit. He brought the band to New York and booked them at the Plaza Hotel. Fifth Avenue and Fifth Avenue became a major traffic jam once fans found out the Beatles were at the hotel. It was an absolute pandemonium. Alan later said Paul was gracious and open-minded, John was in a world of his own, George seemed withdrawn, and Ringo was a happy guy who was easy to get along with.

To help raise funds for the Hemophilia Society, the Beatles kindly agreed to attend a garden party held at my mother’s house in Brentwood. They did not perform their shows, but instead interacted with all the guests who never forgot what it was like to be there that day. Even Paul McCartney talked about it Jimmy Kimmel Live In 2013. Thirty-five years later, he appeared Los Angeles Times He called it the most famous event of 1964.

last words

in conclusion Front row seatOlson offers these words:

“I think of everyone’s life as a big painting. We each start with a blank canvas and a specific color palette. Colors represent our DNA, our mood, our IQ, the color of our eyes and even the shape of our nose. Slowly we begin to shape the image. When we interact with others, the colors of their paintings mix with Our colors.

My drawings at this point are almost complete, they are completely indelible and vivid colors and shapes; It reflects who I am, where I have been, and where I end my life today. If I had two words of advice for each of you, it would simply be this: “Keep painting.”

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